Breathing To Reduce Stress & Improve Strength
In many languages – the words for spirit and breath are one and the same : Sanskrit prana, Hebrew ruach, Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus.
Breathing is the bridge between mind and body, the connection between consciousness and unconsciousness, the movement of spirit in matter. Breath is a key factor for health and wellness, a function we can learn to regulate and develop in order to improve our physical, mental and spiritual health.
Breathing is special in several respects: it is the only function you can perform consciously as well as unconsciously, and it can be a completely voluntary act or a completely involuntary act, as it is controlled by two sets of nerves, one belonging to the voluntary nervous system, the other to the involuntary (autonomic) system. Breath is the bridge between these two systems.
Stress can cause us to breathe too rapidly or to stop breathing as frequently as we should. Instead of a breath every 8-12 seconds, it can become a breath every 25 or 30 seconds. As a result, the body does not get the amount of oxygen it needs which produces a secondary stress response in the body. Now, simply because we’re not breathing properly, we can feel more stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed. Another common issue is that instead of using the diaphragm to breathe from the belly, we use our upper chest and neck muscles producing excessive chest movement during breathing. Again, this is a very inefficient way of breathing which causes poor oxygenation. It also puts a lot of stress on our neck muscles which can then cause us pain, tightness, and headaches.
As well, learning how to breathe properly will also improve your core strength. The diaphragm, which is the main muscle used when breathing correctly, is also a key component of our “inner core”. The diaphragm buttresses the abdominal wall, creating more support for the trunk during activity. This creates a stiffening effect for the trunk and spine, making us less susceptible to back injury. But if we’re not using the diaphragm to breathe, we lose the benefit this critical component of our core.
Most people do not know how to breathe so as to take full advantage of the nourishing, health-giving properties of the act of breathing. Knowing how to perform simple breathing techniques can help lower your blood pressure, calm a racing heart, or help your digestive system without taking drugs. Breathing has direct connections to emotional states and moods – observe someone who is angry, afraid or otherwise upset, and you will see a person breathing rapidly, shallowly, noisily and irregularly. You cannot be upset if your breathing is slow, deep, quiet and regular. You cannot always center yourself emotionally by an act of will, but you can use your voluntary nerves to make your breathing slow, deep, quiet and regular, and the rest will follow.
Breathing exercises are a wonderful way to reduce anxiety, agitation and stress, while promoting relaxation, calm and inner peace. It may take some practice – and requires some commitment on your part to achieve results. However, the long-term benefits are well worth the effort – a calm and relaxed body and mind are less prone to health issues.
Breathing strongly influences physiology and thought processes, including moods. By simply focusing your attention on your breathing, and without doing anything to change it, you can move in the direction of relaxation. Too much attention on upsetting thoughts may cause anxiety, guilt and unhappiness. Get in the habit of shifting your awareness to your breath whenever you find yourself dwelling on stressful situations.
It is utterly simple, takes almost no time, requires no equipment and can be done anywhere. Although you can do the exercise in any position, sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
- This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Note that you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; but the ratio of 4:7:8 is. If you have trouble holding your breath, speed the exercise up but keep to the ratio of 4:7:8 for the three phases. With practice you can slow it all down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply. Practice at least twice a day. You cannot do it too frequently. Do not do more than four breaths at one time for the first month of practice. Later, if you wish, you can extend it to eight breaths. If you feel a little light-headed when you first breathe this way, do not be concerned; it will pass.
Another helpful exercise is to practice “crocodile breathing”. If you see a crocodile breathing you will notice the sides of this reptile moving in and out. To practice this simply lay on your stomach, forehead supported by your hands. Take a slow deep breath in and as you do, try to feel your belly pushing into the floor. This will mean that you’re using your diaphragm to breathe. This sensation of the belly pushing on the floor provides feedback to the brain so that you can tell that you’re using the proper mechanics of breathing. If someone were to watch you they should see your lower back moving up and down much more than you chest area. Practice this exercise for a few minutes every day.
– Andrew Weil MD, with notes by Jonathan Clow DC